The pandemic as an opportunity to help build ecumenical dialogue
“Ecumenism in times of pandemic: from crisis to opportunity” is the title of a working document presented Thursday afternoon by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity at a meeting in the Angelicum in Rome. This is the result of a survey carried out in 2021 among all the Episcopal Conferences and Eastern Catholic Synods in the world.
By Jean-Charles Putzolu
In January 2021, 142 questionnaires were sent to those responsible for ecumenical relations in all Episcopal Conferences and Synods of the Eastern Catholic Churches. The result of the survey is the basis of a fifty-page working document entitled “Ecumenism in times of pandemic: from crisis to opportunity”, presented by the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity on Thursday January 20, during a panel organized at the Angelicum Institute for Ecumenical Studies, with the participation of students from the Ecumenical Institute of Bossey.
All the Churches “in the same boat
The theme of the survey and the document (original text in English here) is inspired by an expression used by Pope Francis: “We are all in the same boat”, which was repeated in many answers to the questionnaire. These words of the Bishop of Rome apply not only to the men and women of our time, but also to the various Churches. For Father Hyacinthe Destivelle, head of the Eastern section of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, “this is the first ecumenical fruit of this pandemic, the awareness of being one Christian family and an awareness rooted in the experience of a common destiny. We are all on our way to a common destiny, which is resurrection.”
A new solidarity
During the two years of the pandemic, and especially during the year 2021, the year to which this vast survey refers, a new bond, a new solidarity, has been rediscovered. And while it was a very complicated time for hundreds of millions of people, deprived of emotional ties and physical contact, and forced to adapt to limited travel, on more than one occasion confinements turned into opportunities. . The document gives many examples, whether in the field of spiritual ecumenism, common prayer or online prayer. Some bishops also noted that the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity had never been better attended than last year. “There have been many joint initiatives, joint statements, joint actions with governments, ecumenical programs to help all the different groups of people affected in one way or another by the crisis,” notes Father Destivelle, citing among other things an ecumenical program for the elderly and isolated has developed in India, or for students in Holland, two countries where Catholics are a minority. All of these initiatives were born during the pandemic, and probably never would have been born without the coronavirus.
Christian churches are also aware that they have greater strength together. They therefore came together to present programs in the field of charity, especially to help the poorest and most vulnerable. Christians could speak with one voice and had more weight with governments. They advocated, lobbied, and sometimes even pressured leaders to respect religious freedom, which was not always seen as a priority at the time of the lockdown.
Better mutual understanding
This solidarity, rediscovered and facilitated by the pandemic, has indeed multiplied the opportunities for meetings and dialogue. Church leaders met, often online, as, for example, in the theological dialogues of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, often leading to a common line of thought that facilitated the writing of documents common.
At the local level, and this also emerges from the summary of the survey, people looked at each other much more. “Because many events were streamed on the Internet,” notes Hyacinthe Destivelle, “Protestants were able to watch Catholic Masses, Catholics were able to watch Gospel prayers, and so not only did this lead to better mutual understanding, but also to a greater sensitivity”.
While the pandemic has promoted and facilitated ecumenical relations, full unity has not been achieved. The summary document highlights three of the most sensitive issues that have emerged during the health emergency. Theological and liturgical differences, which are not new, may have been accentuated by the pandemic, in particular the understanding of sacred space. Orthodox, Catholics and Protestants have different relationships with sacred space; different understanding of the sacraments and the need for a physical presence to receive the sacraments; and finally a somewhat different conception of the Church. However, these controversies are not new.
The different understanding of the pandemic
Perhaps more surprisingly, different Christian denominations may have different understandings of the pandemic. “Some Christians have a more providential or sometimes more eschatological, even sometimes apocalyptic vision of the pandemic. This may have generated tensions between Christians”, explains Father Destivelle.
Finally, different attitudes towards health restrictions have been observed, often linked to local culture — and in particular to the relationship with authority — which is not the same in western countries, in eastern countries, in the south; and therefore is not the same for the different Churches. The question of vaccines is also addressed in the responses to the questionnaire sent by the Episcopal Conferences and the Synods of the Eastern Catholic Churches. These responses reveal several ecumenical initiatives in favor of vaccination and respect for health safety rules.
A turning point in ecumenical relations
Modern ecumenical dialogue has always been closely linked to political, social and cultural developments. For Father Destivelle, the pandemic is one of these developments. “I think this will mark a positive turning point in ecumenical relations,” he said.
Pope Francis also provided additional impetus. Several responses to the questionnaire point out that his call to prayer at the start of the pandemic was widely followed. The Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity has transmitted this appeal to all church leaders, and the vast majority have responded positively to the invitation to pray the Our Father simultaneously, a prayer that all disciples of Christ could say together and at the same time, at noon on March 25, 2020.